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A British woman played a key role in the building of one of India's first railways, writes IMechE archivist Karyn French.

Today an estimated 2.2 billion journeys are made on the railways of Mumbai every year. The roots of this network lie 7,187km away. The Great Indian Peninsula Railway was incorporated by the British parliament on 1 August 1849. It was to be the first railway in India to operate a passenger service.

On 16 April 1853 the first train departed Mumbai--then known as Bombay--travelling to Thane 20 miles away. Despite the swampy land, construction had been completed within a year. A greater challenge was linking Bombay to further afield: it was necessary to cross the Western Ghats, a ridge rising 2,500ft above sea level. Two routes were chosen, one to the north east via Thull Ghat, and one to the south east via Bhore Ghat (now Bhor Ghat).

The spread of the Indian railway system was rapid. The first part of the East Indian Railway opened in 1854. By 1880 there were 9,000 miles of line open, and by 1935 43,000 miles. The lines were designed by British engineers but built by Indian manual labour. The work could be difficult--the Great Indian Peninsula Railway lost nearly a third

of its workforce through disease or accident during the eight years spent building the line from Bombay to Poona.

Solomon Tredwell was appointed as the contractor for the Bhore Ghat line. He soon became one of the line's victims, dying from cholera (or dysentery) 15 days after arriving in India having visited the site. As he had been in post for such a short time, work had only just begun. Tredwell had travelled to India with his wife, Alice, Newly widowed, she took over responsibility for the line.

She appointed new engineers, Swainson Adamson and George Louis Clowser, and they oversaw construction through to the railway's completion. She returned to England once these appointments were made.

Very little is known of Alice Tredwell. Her maiden name was Pickering. She had married Solomon in Leeds in 1846 and they had a son, Mark John. After Solomon's death, his brother William assisted her with the railway contract. She was born in 1823 and died in 1867.

Construction of the Bhore Ghat line proved challenging: 16 miles in length, the railway has to rise 1,821ft, with a maximum gradient of 1 in 37. Twenty-five tunnels, with a combined length of 3,985 yards, had to be built, along with 1,330 yards of viaduct. A reversing station for changing the position of the engines before descent also had to be built. Besides the difficulties of the terrain, other problems arose. In the rainy season of 1859-60, a cholera epidemic killed 12,000 men--30% of the workforce. Many of the remaining workers panicked and left, and construction was halted.

The line was opened to traffic on 14 May 1863. James John Berkeley, the chief resident engineer and an ex-pupil of Robert Stephenson, is said to have praised Alice Tredwell, Clowser and Adamson for their work.

Along with Thull Ghat, the line is one of only two major hill sections in India that carry heavy mainline traffic. In the 1890s it was observed that passengers passing up and down the Ghat inclines "quietly seated in comfortable carriages [would not have realised] the extraordinary nature of the obstacles [overcome by] the great skill and daring of all those engaged ... in shaping and carving out the rocky mountain sides ".

A collection of images showing the construction of the Bhore Ghat railway is held by the IMechE archive. It is now available online at



Today, Indian Railways, the state-owned operator, oversees one of the world's largest rail networks, comprising 115,000km

The Great Indian Peninsula Railway lost nearly a third of its workforce during the eight years building the line
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Title Annotation:Archive: Transport in the days of the Raj
Author:French, Karyn
Publication:Professional Engineering Magazine
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:May 1, 2015
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